From the time I was born into a big family with roots in Rhode Island, I have spent the summer in a converted, circa 1890 carriage house surrounded by the enormous relics of a fascinating period in American history. I have enjoyed a few days as a tourist in my own town to share some stories with you.
The Gilded Age name that looms largest in Newport is Vanderbilt. The family left their mark on the physical landscape with several extraordinary houses that they filled with the finest of European art, artifacts and furniture. (Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted in any of the houses.)
The Breakers, built in 1893 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt who is considered one of America's leading architects of the late 19th century. The house is arguably the crowning example of the opulence and excess that defines the Gilded Age. It contains 70 rooms in approximately 65,000 square feet.
The very best craftsmen and artisans were brought from Europe to the the States to construct these American palaces.
As an earlier building on the property burned, Cornelius insisted that the house be made as fireproof as possible. The structure of the building used steel trusses and no wood. He even required that the furnace be located away from the house; in winter there is an area in front of the main gate over the furnace where snow and ice always melt.
The Italian Renaissance-style palazzo was inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin.
Prior to the building spree of his offspring, the patriarch of the family, 'The Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, had a hand in shaping the political and financial history of America. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is as much the story of a brilliant man and his world as it is the story of the creation of modern capitalism.
The Breakers is one of the few surviving works of Richard Morris Hunt that was not demolished during the last century and is therefore valuable for its rarity as well as its architectural excellence. The house was Hunt’s final work.
The playhouse built for the seven Vanderbilt children.
Incredible as it is, The Breakers was built for the family to enjoy for a brief six weeks of the summer. The house survives nearly intact and open to the public through the work of The Preservation Society of Newport County.
If you are interested, another good read about the period, its architecture and one of the most notable firms of the day is Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age.